When More Visible ≠ Safer: Target Fixation

When More Visible ≠ Safer: Target Fixation

Looking at the photo above from our Flèche last year, it’s easy to think: “Two of these riders are much safer than the other two.” The reflective vests really stand out in the flash of the camera.
Being hit from behind is one of the primal fears of cyclists. It’s the one accident that we are almost powerless to prevent. We rely on drivers giving us enough room, so it’s important to be visible. It’s perhaps natural to think that if we are even more visible, we somehow can will drivers to give us more room.
In urban environments, the biggest danger for cyclists is being overlooked. There is a lot of visual clutter – even at night – that competes for the attention of drivers. In this scenario, more lights and reflective gear all can be useful to make the rider more visible.
However, the photo above was taken during a moonless night on a backroad miles from the next light. Here, a single red light usually suffices to be seen. Adding a pedal or ankle reflector helps identify the rider as a cyclist. This can be useful for traffic approaching from behind to judge the cyclist’s speed.
Adding even more lights and reflectors may not be a good idea. Most fatalities during U.S. brevets were caused by drivers hitting cyclists who were NOT in their lane of traffic. The victims were on the shoulder or even on the other side of the road, facing the other way. It does not appear that lacking visibility was a concern here – on the contrary, target fixation may have contributed to the accidents.
Target fixation occurs when drivers (or pilots) focus on a light source. As most cyclists know, your bike, car or airplane goes where you look, so if you look at the taillight of a cyclist riding on the shoulder, you are more likely to drift onto the shoulder yourself. This is not a theoretical concern – it has been documented in simulators.
Target fixation appears more pronounced for impaired drivers (whether sleepy or drunk). It also appears to be more pronounced with blinking lights than steady ones. And the brighter the lights, the stronger the target fixation becomes.
Police cars, which are on the shoulder during a traffic stop, are frequently hit by drunk drivers. You would expect drunk drivers to do all they can to avoid police cars, yet they plow right into them. Google “police car hit on shoulder”, and you’ll find many reports of such accidents, and even a video of a car that veers right, glances off a police car, and then hits the car the police has pulled over. Faced with the dangers of target fixation, some police officers now recommend turning off the flashing lights during traffic stops on the shoulder.
What does this mean for cyclists? Really, the safest illumination is one that is powerful enough to show your location, but not so strong that it causes target fixation. When it’s completely dark, even a single red light will be plenty visible.
In fact, when riding on a shoulder at night, it may be safest to be invisible. The odds that a driver will swerve randomly onto the shoulder and hit you may be smaller than the odds of attracting an impaired driver through target fixation.
(However, if you ride without taillights on the shoulder, you are not complying with the law and randonneuring rules, and there is the risk that you will forget to switch on your taillight when you leave the shoulder and ride on the road again.)
When you think about target fixation, you also realize that blinding oncoming traffic with high-powered or even flashing lights appears to be downright suicidal. The same applies to helmet lights – if you are looking at a car coming the other way, you guide them right toward you!
For me, this means that in urban environments, I wear reflective materials. Even there, I don’t see the need to light up my bike like a Christmas tree, because my headlight actually makes me much more visible at night than I am during daytime. On dark rural roads, I will take off my reflective vest. I will rely on my taillight and reflective ankle bands to broadcast my location and speed, without dazzling drivers or having them lock onto me in a bout of target fixation.
How do you stay safe when riding at night?
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Comments (63)

  • Bendo

    I stay safe at night by avoiding busy roads as much as my commute will allow. On my bikes I have a Son 28 dynamo hub with Edelux headlight and Lumotec rear; on my other bike I have a Spanninga Pixeo rear light and a Moon headlight. Having these European-standard, non-flashing lights has made me think about the necessity of flashing lights for visibility. I know I personally hate them, whether having to sit behind a flashing red or be greeted with a migraine-inducing white flicker.
    Flashing lights are still acceptable in Australia I suspect because there are relatively few cyclists compared with cars. However it is easy to imagine with greater numbers of cyclists the effect of dozens or even hundreds of flashing lights in nighttime traffic would become unbearable. Perhaps this is the reasoning behind European laws, as much as the target-fixation thesis mentioned above (curiously the author of the linked literature review advocates in his opening disclaimer the use of bright, flashy lights).
    I have spoken with other cyclists who swear by the need for flashing lights for visibility. Something in these conversations has reminded of a kind of ‘arms-race’ of brightness, in the same way as fear of traffic has lead to an arms-race in vehicle size, i.e. the uptake in use of SUVs not for any kind of off-road sport but for providing a sensation of safety and being above the traffic. Just like excessively bright lights, large SUVs also reduce visibility, and therefore safety, for other road users.
    As for those riders who use massive, helmet mounted lights when riding in urban areas… there’s a special level of hell waiting for them!

    April 12, 2014 at 2:29 am
    • Jonathan Gehman

      The most frustrating night ride I’ve ever done was with someone with a helmet light(and a regular headlamp) who would reflexively look at oncoming cars, the person riding next to him, dogs, whatever. He kept a running commentary about how dangerous night riding is because all the drunks come out and swerve at you, he was even convinced that the most aggressive dogs were more nocturnal because they would chase him harder at night. The last straw was when he went off the front, turned around to make sure everyone was “OK” and blinded us all in turn on a gravel downhill. We threatened to take his light from him and give it back after we were done for the night if he kept it up. It didn’t change his behavior but he decided not to ride with us anymore.

      April 12, 2014 at 6:26 am
  • robertkerner

    You’ve hit upon a topic that’s near and dear to me as a cyclist/motorcyclist and someone who trains people to be safe in their professions. There’s a lot of writing out there on the topic, but I’m not sure it will stand the test of time. There’s no way to know what goes on in the mind of an impaired person, and they seem most likely to fixate. Back in the 70’s and 80’s the fire service thought lime green was the safest color for emergency vehicles, but that was debunked in the 90’s. Similarly, we thought red and yellow lights were best for emergency vehicles; now the trend is shifting to blue. Who knows?
    I think you’re more likely to get hit for being invisible to a motorist than being too visible. A couple of years ago there was an article in BMW Owners Assoc magazine where they showed motorists pictures of street scene and asked them to write down what they saw. People saw amazing details, writing on signs, logos on vehicles…but not the people on motorcycles. Inattention blindness: we’re not “trained” or “wired” to look for two wheeled vehicles on the road. My own wife rarely sees cyclists until she’s a car length away from them, while I can pick them out much earlier while driving.
    My personal safety plan is to get drivers’ attention, maybe even retrain them! I commute to work in darkness so I’ve invested some money in this. Reflective leg bands, bright yellow wind vest with reflective piping on it. Dinotte head and tail lights. I’ve thought about the target fixation issue and my solution is this. The tail light has an steady + pulse mode. I want something that catches the attention of whomever is behind me, but doesn’t panic them. When I ride in a group, I set it to steady because the flash can be annoying. Headlight is set to solid, mid level in darkness; set to flash in daylight to get people’s attention in traffic. The light disappears in daylight unless it flashes. Both/all of the lights are aimed just a little toward the ground, so they are not blinding anyone. So far so good. All of my close calls have been with drivers coming at me from the side (pulling out of parking lots or side streets without looking) or drivers on their phones. I don’t have a solution for that yet!

    April 12, 2014 at 5:02 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      There’s no way to know what goes on in the mind of an impaired person

      We don’t really need to know what they think, but what they do when confronted with different situations. This can be studied risk-free in simulators…

      April 12, 2014 at 3:02 pm
  • Alex Turner

    I am drawn to anything which challenges conventional wisdom. This post is an excellent example of just that with a clearly explained rational to back up the position.
    BTW I got my first puncture yesterday after riding about 560 miles (not in one ride!) on the Barlow Pass 38mm tires. Front wheel. A tiny little hole slowly leaking air. Fixed on the road in about 10-15 minutes. Removal and replacement of the tire was a breeze. I am still happy to have swapped from the heavier bomb proof tires I had become used to.

    April 12, 2014 at 6:05 am
  • Greg

    Thank you for discussing this. I’ve been preaching this for years (that blinking lights are nearly suicidal). I hate, hate, hate blinking lights of any kind, and I also dislike excessively-bright lights (which are more prevalent now due to the recent improvements in lighting, generator, and battery technology).
    We recently experienced target fixation while walking our dog around the neighborhood. Fortunately, in that case we could step out of the street, as we walk against traffic (NEVER, ever ride your bike against traffic, though!).

    April 12, 2014 at 6:15 am
  • Ted kelly

    I thought the RUSA rules required a reflective vest when it’s dark? Do I have that wrong? Please note that I am not disputing what you are saying about what is safe, I’m just trying to be sure what the rules for randonneur / flèche events are.

    April 12, 2014 at 6:50 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      RUSA rules require reflective material, but that rule has been interpreted to mean a vest. I am talking about rides on my own with friends, not RUSA events.

      April 12, 2014 at 3:06 pm
  • John Romeo Alpha

    Since the portion of my commute which at night in Phoenix is about a thousand miles per year, that’s the context of my response. Target fixation–where you look so shall you go–is slightly counterintuitive and demonstrably real. Mountain biking, motor cycles, and driving in dense fog or dust storms raise it to a life-or-death situation quickly. On the other hand, noticing retroreflection from a deer’s eyes just before they leap in front of your car from a ditch on a dark country night is more or less the only way to avoid them. My bike headlight is the only active measure that alerts side-entering drivers of me at night in an urban setting. These are not mutually exclusive observations, but rather rise or fall in relevance situationally. Retroreflection only works at certain angles, anyway. And flashing lights I am beginning to doubt more and more. Statistically the most important measure we could probably take would be smart phone V2C or C2V (cyclist to vehicle) (V2P V2M) http://www.honda.com/newsandviews/article.aspx?id=7352-en alerts to shake up people who are texting before they hit us due to inattention. That’s a few years away, probably.

    April 12, 2014 at 8:11 am
  • David T.

    This is an interesting topic. I know what you are talking about. But it is hard to prove or test what makes a cyclist safer.
    The analogy of police vehicles or tow-trucks being at risk is apt. Now in Ontario there is a law that vehicles have to move over a lane when there is a vehicle on the shoulder aiding another one. But a police car on the shoulder with its lights flashing isn’t the same as a bike with lights. Drivers typically slow down and gawk to see what happened; also, these roadside vehicles are at risk during daylight as well as at night.
    I can even understand your provocative notion that at times it might be better to be invisible, or have no lights on. But that really would depend on the type of road you are on, and the type of drivers in the area.
    My own thought is that it helps to signal to drivers that I am a bicycle: then the conscientious ones will know what to do. I don’t ride long distances on country roads in the dark like you though.
    Thanks for bringing up this subject, tips and thoughts on how to increase safety are welcome.

    April 12, 2014 at 8:19 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I can even understand your provocative notion that at times it might be better to be invisible, or have no lights on.

      This is only if you are not riding in the lane where motorized traffic goes. And even there, it would be best to be noticed in case a car wants to pull over on the shoulder… as long as you can avoid target fixation.

      April 12, 2014 at 3:09 pm
  • a ct cyclist

    I ride with a rechargable 500 lumen head light at night on a mix of suburban roads. In the rear I use the Pixeo tail light that attaches to the fender. The headlight is mounted to the front rack. None of the lights flash. I’m not completely buying the target fixation theory. When I pass a police car I find that their lights are obnoxously bright and blinding, making it very difficult to see, which would be my hypothesis of why they are struck by passing vehicles.
    I find the suggestion that one should perhaps ride on a dark rode without any rear lights or reflectors to be very dangerous. As a car driver I find it very scary when I discover something on the shoulder but I can’t quite identify what it is until I am close. As a cyclist I find it almost safer to bike at night because the drivers are much more cautious and give me more space when passing.

    April 12, 2014 at 8:42 am
    • Bill Gobie

      police car … lights are obnoxously bright and blinding
      Such lights are a recent development. Target fixation was noted long before. I wonder if the super bright lights will increase crashes involving parked emergency vehicles. Jan notes some police advocate turning off the lights during stops. There might be a similar flashing vs steady light debate in the emergency services community, with well-funded studies of the issue.

      April 12, 2014 at 4:31 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        The police officers I found quoted online recommend a moving chain of yellow lights that directs cars to move away from the shoulder…

        April 12, 2014 at 11:30 pm
  • Alban Brindle

    Here in UK the most common setup particularly in urban environments is to use flashing front and rear. Only cycles are legally allowed to use flashing lights and therefore they immediately mark you out as a bicycle.
    Roads here tend to be narrow and a good proportion of cars have relatively little awareness of bicycles so the tendency here is to mount more than one rear light as a defensive gesture but front is normally limited to one. However in rural environments then it is more usual to see one flashing rear and a non flashing front.
    I spent a long period having a reasonably long rural commute and initially my tendency was to light up like a Christmas tree with at least three rear and two front all flashing but over time I ended up with the single rear and single front neither of which was flashing. I found this to be most effective in both alerting drivers to my presence and avoiding the aggressive close passes that can really shake confidence.
    The other element I have noticed since the advent of helmet cams is that the aggression and awareness seems to have markedly improved. Unfortunately I think this may only be due to the fact that there is now the possibility of prosecution for overly aggressive driving.

    April 12, 2014 at 10:10 am
  • Andy

    My former commute of 6 years involved a 5% climb for a mile on a narrow lane with no shoulder and not enough room for car drivers to pass when there was oncoming traffic. Over the years my lights have changed. I’ve had everything from one $5 taillight to 2 Superflashes (usually used in flashing mode) to a wide dynamo taillight. I was surprised any time I switched lights that drivers didn’t behave any differently. Regardless of lights, I found that they passed safer and more cautiously when I started riding ~3ft from the curb, rather than 1ft. They saw me, and would have to wait patiently if there was oncoming traffic before passing.
    For a few nights over the holidays I did actually string holiday lights on my bike, flashing and of several colors. It didn’t help. Pedestrians were still stepping out into the road to cross without seeing me, and drivers were still choosing to pull out of driveways when I was too close. That is when I learned that more light isn’t any better.
    One thing I recall hearing a few years ago is that cyclists should absolutely never use 2 solid lights mounted to the side of each other (e.g. one on each seat stay). This could appear to be a set of car taillights that is far away, rather than a bicycle that’s very close. At least the days of double matching headlights seems to be mostly over.

    April 12, 2014 at 10:15 am
  • Heather

    I have read about target fixation and try to put my rear lights on steady mode which really drains batteries, or my pdw light has a subdued flash pattern. I was hit from behind once, luckily my panniers were so full and whomever hit me was driving rather slowly, but I was on the shoulder of an 80km/hour highway. My panniers had reflective bits, my rear light was bright and flashing, I had reflective pant straps, but nothing over the top. I was unhurt except for a sore left leg, the left pannier had some scraping but intact. The driver pulled over further ahead for a few minutes, I went up to the car yelling, and the elderly man took off, leaving me shaking and afraid in the dark. Yes, being hit behind is a big fear, but I do not think being lit up like christmas is a good idea either. I see many local cyclists have several bike lights rear and front, as many as possible as they are afraid. But they definitely are distracting and could be a target.

    April 12, 2014 at 11:35 am
  • Bill Gobie

    You make an interesting argument against copious reflective gear. However, if a rider is unaware his tail light has failed (and I see this often) good reflectors are important.
    I suspect your ulterior motive is to study internet target fixation. The flashing light crowd should be here with pitchforks soon.

    April 12, 2014 at 12:29 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      if a rider is unaware his tail light has failed (and I see this often) good reflectors are important.

      I totally agree. Traffic rules and the rules of randonneuring require a reflector on the rear. The Compass taillight we designed has a reflector as the lens, so if the taillight fails – which should not happen, since it’s very well-made – it’ll act as an EN-approved reflector.
      Many reflectors sold today don’t reflect very well. We were surprised when we tested reflectors for our taillight – look for the ones with the EN approval symbol.
      Also, many reflective clothing items, like the ankle bands that RUSA used to sell, stop reflecting when they are wet. Will DeRosset tested this years ago. The fuzzy, flexible stuff seems to be especially bad, and the best are the vinyl-like stiff materials.

      April 12, 2014 at 3:17 pm
      • Doug

        That’s disheartening — I generally only wear my reflective sash on rainy nighttime commutes!
        I guess this demonstrates the problem with “being visible” as a safety measure — you never know how visible you really are! Better to be vigilant and aware at all times and learn to predict what cars are doing before the they do something. This he saved my butt many times. But I still use lights and reflective materials!

        April 12, 2014 at 8:12 pm
  • chionanthus

    I commute and ride brevets in darkness and just today worked a control along a dark roadside between 5 and 6 this morning. I always wear the RUSA ankle bands and their LS2 reflective vest and use dyno head and taillights. Because my rural route has little traffic I can easily tell from engine noise and tire flap if and when a motorist has seen me. I feel very visible in this rig. My nearly daily presence on this route has come to be expected, I presume, and contributes to my safety.
    My observation of this morning’s brevet is that riding in well-lit groups appears both safer and quite lovely. A long strand of red lights along a dark road should give motorists pause and most slow down, possibly in a WTF reaction. Single riders appeared to me to be easily overlooked, especially if their lights are improperly placed. I encountered one rider at the control whose taillight was obscured by a trunk rack and his reflective gear was inadequate. (yes he passed bike inspection) Later I came up behind him whilst driving home and found him to be nearly invisible. That explained the behavior of the dump truck that passed him shortly after leaving the control. A single tail light attached to a seat stay can also be obscured by the wheel or a pannier when viewed a few degrees off.
    The flash photo that often accompanies discussions of night riding seems to me deceptive. The reflective clothing never looked as stunningly bright along the road this morning as the picture above. Reflective gear seems more to hint at a strange object ahead. Well placed lighting seems the most critical to me. If I may add one more observation, I was momentarily blinded by a tandem couple decked out in reflective gear one morning. The rising sun caught them just right as they crested a hill and lit them up in a flash. It was extremely bright and very disconcerting.

    April 12, 2014 at 4:52 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I strongly believe that lights should be firmly attached to the bike, and not to clothing, bags and other soft items where the orientation of the light is not well-controlled. Like you, I have seen many cyclists with multiple blinking lights that pointed in various directions, but not where traffic approaching from behind could see them.

      April 13, 2014 at 4:08 am
  • Peter C

    I feel most vulnerable at dawn and dusk, and more so when clocks are changed for daylight saving. At these times the rear light seems less distinguished in the half light. At dawn I suspect some other road users are not at their most attentive. Further, many roads in my city of Canberra, Australia are long and straight with up to 5 sets of traffic lights visible, making a constantly glowing rear light hard to pick out. In these circumstances a flashing rear light could perhaps be more visible. I have no scientific basis for this – just experience and gut feel. What a great discussion.

    April 12, 2014 at 4:55 pm
  • B. Carfree

    My commute used to consist of a forty mile leg to work on a “rural” highway. (It’s not really rural if all the residents are commuting to a city rather than making their living from the land, but that’s another whole topic.) Since this was in Oregon, I got to interact with a number of intoxicated motorists. My strategy was to simply go dark and leave the road when I heard them (traffic was low enough that this was a minor inconvenience.) I observed these drunks roaming all over the roadway. They only spent time in their own lane because they needed to cross it to leave it on the other side. Okay, not really, but close enough.
    I suspect the current obsession with target fixation may have something to do with this behavior. When a drunk hits a police car that was lit up, people are quick to jump to the conclusion that s/he was attracted to the lights. The truth may well be that the drunk simply didn’t process the lights in time to avoid them and may not have been capable of steering clear of them even if s/he did see them in a timely fashion. They’re drunk. They careen all over the road and often leave it entirely. Sometimes they hit things on the way by. That doesn’t mean they saw those things or were fixated on them and thus drove where they were looking.
    Now, what about the merely fatigued or otherwise brain-dead motorists? For them, I suspect that a dim light will be more likely to get them to stare at it and thus drive mindlessly into it than a blazing, painfully bright light would. If the light is dim, they will likely stare long enough to determine what it is and where it is, which may take some motorists quite a while. In the meantime, the car is closing at perhaps as much as 25 meters per second and, if the motorist is indeed steering towards where s/he is looking, it’s lights out for the rider. Put something bright like a Dinotte 400r back there, aim it so that it prevents someone from staring at it, and target fixation issues go away. Now, if we could just find a way to make drunk drivers go away…

    April 12, 2014 at 5:17 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Interesting thoughts… however, the studies of target fixation indicate that the brighter the light, the greater the fixation.

      April 12, 2014 at 11:33 pm
    • Josh df

      Conclusion – Drunk jerks are drunk jerks.

      April 13, 2014 at 11:14 am
  • Conrad

    Automotive reflective tape works really, really well. It is amazing how far away it can be seen, yet it doesn’t blind you. A neatly cut sphere of tape stuck on the fenders doesn’t detract much from the appearance of the bike in my opinion and is always there if your tail light runs out of batteries (for those of us without generator tail lights yet). I used a hole punch to put a bunch of little reflective dots on my helmet and a lot of people have commented that it really improves visibility without being annoying like helmet mounted lights.

    April 12, 2014 at 8:47 pm
  • Eric Larsen

    This is hogwash!
    You have provided no evidence that more well lit cyclists are struck and killed by drunks than unlit cyclists; much less that unlit cyclists are hit less often than lit cyclists, yet you suggest it could be safer. You provide as evidence that “Most fatalities during U.S. brevets were caused by drivers hitting cyclists who were NOT in their lane of traffic. The victims were on the shoulder or even on the other side of the road, facing the other way.” A reasonable explanation for this fact could be that RUSA riders were so well lit that they were most often avoided and unharmed by traffic except in cases where the driver was entirely intoxicated that they swerved across the road, and zero empirical evidence that they did so as a result of the victim’s lighting.
    The only conclusion that Dr Green provides is that “drivers may steer off the road when they fixate on flashing lights”, yet you suggest it may be safer to be invisible because the odds of attracting an impaired driver are greater than someone swerving. Maybe there are a lot of drunks out where you ride, but you have provided mere conjecture and ammunition for people who ride unsafely at night to stupidly argue that they are trying to avoid ‘the moth affect’. That is irresponsible for a widely read and respected expert.
    Have you noticed any highway construction crews adopting this theory? Blinking lights aside, I submit that the problem is drunk drivers, not good lighting.

    April 13, 2014 at 1:31 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      This post is not about clear-cut evidence, but about questions that we need to ask, rather than assume that more visible is always safer.

      April 13, 2014 at 4:04 am
      • jsallen1

        Who is the Dr. Green being cited?

        April 15, 2014 at 1:19 pm
      • jsallen1

        OK, I found him. He is the author of the article Jan linked to in his post.

        April 15, 2014 at 1:21 pm
    • Larry T.

      Good points. Seems to be confusion between cause and effect here. Cop cars being plowed into from behind while on the shoulder with lights flashing? Compared to what – cop cars parked in the middle of the road with lights flashing? Don’t MOST cops pull over to the shoulder to make their traffic stops? Are comparable statistics about cop cars parked on the shoulder with no flashing lights available?
      Cyclists hit while on the road shoulder with reflective stuff and lights? I would think MOST of the cyclists riding on the road would be over to the side/shoulder rather than in the center of the road, so naturally the majority of cyclists hit would be those. Drunks or otherwise impaired drivers swerve across the center-line and hit cyclists coming the other way in broad daylight, so target fixation is not likely the cause. I have a tough time believing that less visibility is ever better than more under any conditions. Too often motorists get away with the old “but I never saw him/her” when their careless behavior results in a collision.

      April 16, 2014 at 8:28 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        It appears that police cars with their lights flashing are hit more often than other, unlit obstacles on the shoulder, for example, cars abandoned in the same location on the shoulder – at least in simulators. Getting real, on-the-road data is difficult.

        April 17, 2014 at 4:42 pm
  • Michael Wellman

    As usual you rainse an interesting question, however this is one of the few times I disagree with you 100%. When I ride at night I’m lit up like a Christmas tree. I have never had any one come close to me. In fact, it’s just the opposite. I can see the cars start to move over to give me more room. The only time I’ve had people come close to me while riding is during daylight hours. As a driver I cringe when I see cyclist/runner/walker without lights. I have come close several times of striking one of these nija warriors in their all black gear. Furthermore, when I see cyclist/runner/walker is lit up I will slow down and move over (if possible). NEVER have I ever been drawn to them like a moth to the flame. I find that whole theory preposterous. I maintain the problem isn’t the light but peoples inattentiveness to the situation. Therin lies the problem–drivers who are dstracted and not paying attention to driving. As mentioned before we can not know the mind of these people when they drive off and strike a well lit object, but it seems obvious to me that problem isn’t with the lights it’s with the drivers not paying attention to what their driving.

    April 13, 2014 at 8:28 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I have come close several times of striking one of these nija warriors in their all black gear.

      So have I, and I certainly don’t advocate being invisible in places where your safety relies on being seen.

      April 13, 2014 at 2:51 pm
  • Niels Hansen April 13, 2014 at 10:10 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Thank you for posting this. Motorcyclists rarely face the risk of being hit from behind – they are usually the fastest vehicles on the road. The risk they face is mostly at intersections, where drivers crossing their path don’t look for motorcycle-shaped objects… For cyclists, the situation is similar in urban settings, and being conspicuous is important especially during daytime. At night, good headlight is very conspicuous, since darkness reduces the visual clutter. While it still happens during daytime that drivers don’t see me in the city, it never happens at night.

      April 13, 2014 at 2:47 pm
      • Niels Hansen

        It was in fact one of the only studies I could find which looks at the pure statistics of high-viz apparel and their effectiveness. It’s puzzling to find that there are made hundreds of studies and experiments which clearly shows that high-viz clothing makes you more visible; BUT NOT WHETHER THE INCREASED VISIBILITY ACTUALLY LEADS TO MORE SAFETY?!?! It’s just assumed that those two are linked!
        I looked at highway workers, pedestrians, motorcyclist, bicyclist and police/paramedics. No actual statistics that support the thesis: visibility = safety.
        On a personal note: I’d prefer to be seen any day, and from my own experience as a driver often passing my local running club on dark b-roads; hi-viz clothing works superbly!

        April 14, 2014 at 2:59 am
  • Bryan Willman

    One wonders if a light that was itself invisible to cars, but projected a sort of “white line” on the road to the left of the cyclist would be a good or bad thing? Might be good in that most would line up to the left of it. Might be bad in that if you were in the traffic lane, you might cause people to drift left and hit oncoming cars because they were confused about where the edge of the road is.

    April 13, 2014 at 10:28 am
    • davep

      An issue with that is that you’d need quite a lot of power to be able to make that line bright enough from far enough away.

      April 14, 2014 at 4:57 pm
  • Bryan Willman

    Second thought – I wonder if moderately traveled roads are not SAFER than very quite ones? Why? Because cars often follow the taillights of other cars, and so a line of cars might be quite likely to (a) stay in their lane and (b) drive around you. Where the rare but inevitable single car on a dark quite lane may be more likely to wonder or run into the back of you.

    April 13, 2014 at 10:29 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I have experienced the opposite: The first car gives you ample room, but the second doesn’t realize why the first car weaved to the left and gets much closer…

      April 13, 2014 at 2:49 pm
      • Jonathan Gehman

        I’ve experienced the same thing especially after rain when there is a sort of waist high fog behind every car.

        April 14, 2014 at 11:58 am
  • marmotte27

    This is a real concern for us here in France, where reflective vests are mandatory at night or when sight is poor outside urban areas.
    I don’ t wear a reflective vest, because I don’t want to carry around and put on an off any more gear than is strictly necessary, and because of the risk of actually being less safe, not more, due to the phenomenon you describe.
    But by doing this, I put myself outside of the law, and I run the risk of not getting any compensation in case of an accident…

    April 14, 2014 at 12:18 am
  • David Pearce

    Hm! Another interesting blog post. I really don’t know what to think–the information is so new to me, counter-intuitive and provocative, but yet compelling. A lot of comments and thoughtful commenters as well. Going to have to think and digest! Feel like there ought to be three directions: Left, Right, and Off The Beaten Path!

    April 14, 2014 at 5:21 am
  • Edwin Williamson

    I run a steady headlight at all times (B&M Lumotec IQ Premium Fly RT Senso Plus – whew what a name!) that has daytime running lights and a headlight at night. I run a steady light in the rear off of my rear rack – Topline plus and a reflective triangle hanging from my saddle. Not the brighest or best that technology could ever offer, but a good, solid lighting scheme that helps, I think.

    April 14, 2014 at 6:21 am
  • InvisibleHand

    “In fact, when riding on a shoulder at night, it may be safest to be invisible. The odds that a driver will swerve randomly onto the shoulder and hit you are smaller than the odds of attracting an impaired driver through target fixation.”
    Just for clarity, the second sentence is speculation if I read the literature review correctly. It should read that the odds of “X” may be smaller than the odds of “Y”. From what I understand, there is too little information to determine the net effect. More broadly, I gather that a lot of this depends on the environment. In surroundings with cars, I’d be surprised if cyclists had lights that were much brighter than automobiles. In more secluded settings, having a good front light should give drivers more context and make fixation less likely.

    April 14, 2014 at 7:52 am
  • VincentB

    To survive my year-round commute of 2x30km, I trust my powerful head and taillights and ….. a small rearviewmirror attached to the end of my drop bar so that I can keep an eye on sleepy car drivers that play with their smartphones early in the morning.
    I’m not sure about the target-fixation effect versus bad visibility, it probably depends on the situations and varying circumstances that you encounter as a cyclist in the dark.

    April 14, 2014 at 10:43 am
  • davep

    Drunk drivers manage to run into all sorts of things that aren’t “lit up”. EIther flashing lights don’t work to keep drunk drivers away or they attrack them (it’s not clear whether we know which is the case). Since cop cars always have their lights flashing, we don’t really know whether cop cars would be better-off with their flashing lights off. (Or, correlation does not prove causation.)

    April 14, 2014 at 4:48 pm
  • Xavier

    I’m a bit sketpical that the target fixation effect could offset the benefits of proper lighting but at the end we all seems to agree that good lighting is a must for safety. And that strong lighting directed at other road users are blinding and should be avoided.
    My favorite way to improve visibility (and I think safety) is 3M diamond grade reflective tape on seatstays. It’s flexible enough to bend on the thin seatstays and often integrate well with the aesthetic of a bike. And from the testing I did it’s way more reflective than most reflective materials used on vests.

    April 15, 2014 at 5:08 am
  • Matt Stonich

    I don’t believe in the moth effect at all. The issue is visiblity. When driving on a dark unlit road with only low beams because there’s another driver in front of me, it’s hard to see the definition of the surroundings, so I tend to drive a little closer to the shoulder of the road. Except, if the center line and the fog lines are highly visible I’m able to concentrate more on the surroundings. So, as I see it, when a bicyclist is decked out head to toe in reflective gear isn’t the problem it’s the lack of proper markings of the roads which will cause motorists to drive too close.

    April 15, 2014 at 7:47 am
  • alexmwilkins

    I live in Singapore at the moment, and the bane of my commute has become electric bicycle scooters (with headlights off to save power…) that come silently flying past you, too close for comfort. Rear safety light provided by a CD cable-tied to the back of said vehicle…!

    April 16, 2014 at 2:07 am
  • Drew Devereux

    Those blinking lights are so annoying. When I drive, it makes it more difficult to judge the actual location of the bike, compared to a steady tail light.
    Their proliferance makes most bikes seem like an “emergency on 2 wheels”. I think the principal reason they are so common is because they use less power, making the batteries last longer. Clamp-on lights are the misguided fix to the problem of the bike industry selling recreational equipment, instead of roadworthy vehicles.
    Now that dynamo generators and LED lights are available, I see no reason to not have them on every bike sold for road use. Maybe if pro racers started using them, the pubic would demand them?
    I use a dynamo/LED setup; it’s on day and night. Reflective ankle straps identify me as a bike rider, and aside from keeping pants cuffs secured, are very visible because of the up and down movement. I use a ODOT reflective vest; the same type as professional highway workers. If someone says they couldn’t see me; well it means they can’t see highway workers either. That may help if it comes to a legal action in court.

    April 16, 2014 at 1:26 pm
  • Nick

    The odds that a driver will swerve randomly onto the shoulder and hit you are smaller than the odds of attracting an impaired driver through target fixation.

    My experiences would beg to differ. I’ve noticed cars tend to drift out of their lanes into shoulders, cross the midline, and not signal if they don’t think anyone is around.

    April 17, 2014 at 1:09 am
  • Z. Fechten

    I remember reading a research paper on lights on work zone vehicles. It said that the brilliant but brief flashes from strobes can be seen from much further away than rotating beacons. However, it’s much harder to tell how far away they are. Based on this, I expect the distance to a steady-burn lights should be easier to judge than blinkers.

    April 17, 2014 at 6:01 pm
  • Conservative Values (@conservativekc)

    I tend to think the “target fixation” explanation is just making excuses for criminally negligent driving.
    There’s certainly an upper limit (though I don’t know what that is, specifically), but I generally believe that “more is better” in terms of lighting/reflectivity and conspicuity.

    April 17, 2014 at 7:15 pm
  • Jon Blum

    Like Nick, I am a little skeptical about the dangers of target fixation, though I do not know how I would react to bike lights while driving drunk, since I don’t do that. My commute area features lots of marked bike lanes. Unfortunately, I see drivers drifting into them in two situations: when they are using their mobile device, and when they are contemplating an upcoming right turn and shift rightward long before they need to (sometimes up to 1/4 mile before the intersection). It’s possible that a bright (even blinking) light might have a better chance than something more subtle to alert a driver partially distracted by his cell phone or an upcoming turn (assuming he is not just staring down at a text message). As a driver, I am not at all bothered by blinking bike lights, though I would not use one in a group bike ride. They are illegal in California, but I have not seen or heard of this being enforced.

    April 17, 2014 at 8:10 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Target fixation is real – cyclists notice it when they hit the pothole they are so hard trying to avoid. Children playing soccer fixate on the goalie and shoot right into her arms, even though the goal is huge and wide open.
      The question for me is simply how much illumination and reflectivity is needed to be seen by every road user approaching from behind, and yet incur the least risk from target fixation. I believe this varies, depending on the amount of competing light sources. Going down the strip in Las Vegas, there are enough lights that you don’t need to worry much about a driver getting fixated on you!

      April 18, 2014 at 3:36 pm
  • mike w.

    A couple of thoughts:
    Reflectors are a fine idea, however i always told customers at my former shop that reflectors assume that the car that’s about to hit you has its lights on.
    Also, if one is hit by a car, among the first things the police (and defense attorneys later,) will ask is “was the rider using lights (or reflectors, high viz, etc.)?”
    i consider good lighting as essential defense both before and after a collision (i refuse to use the term “accident”.)

    April 18, 2014 at 6:22 am
  • shastatour

    On a 5 week bicycle tour 5 years ago, my two companions and I discussed this subject quite extensively. One guy had the extremely bright DiNotte while the other friend and I had a combo of the Planet Blinky and a Blackburn that were manufactured then. We were particularly concerned about drunk drivers fixating on the blinking light and running us over.
    Our riding was 99% during the day, and our observations were that the brighter the light and having the lights on in general, the more the cars and trucks seemed to give us room. That leads me to wonder if human behavior regarding response to lights (blinking and steady) is different in the daytime and night-time.
    Your article seemed to be about riding at night while many comments have mixed anecdotes about day and night experiences. Has anyone seen studies that compare human behavior regarding lights in night and day conditions?

    April 18, 2014 at 9:23 am

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